It had been quite a few years since I last attended the Easter Vigil celebration at St John’s Co-Cathedral. St John’s has always fascinated me. It is our greatest national treasure and tells a good and fascinating story about this country and its history.
It also caught the attention of the leaders of the 28 heads of state or government of the European Union as they were ushered into the building during the summit held in Malta on February 3. I followed this live on TV and could not help noticing the expression on the faces of these men and women of power as they raised their eyes to gaze at the vault and then went on to view Caravaggio’s The Beheading of St John the Baptist.
As a child, for the first few years, we lived in Valletta and went to Mass at St John’s every Sunday. We also attended the Holy Week celebrations there and I can faintly recollect the late Archbishop Michael Gonzi presiding the Holy Saturday celebration.
After a long absence, I was back, as a seminarian, at the co-cathedral for Holy Week for six consecutive years. However, this was almost 20 years ago and hence I’m not sure what truly drew me back this year. Probably, it was my curiosity to see what influence Archbishop Charles Scicluna is exerting on the liturgical celebrations in our cathedrals and the news that since Ash Wednesday, there is a new and young maestro di cappella, Hamish Dustagheer, at the cathedral.
More than ever, this year I somehow really desired to celebrate Easter in a meaningful manner. Living in Żejtun, with the Good Friday procession passing right in front of our home, Easter tends to be a bit of an anti-climax. Hence, we decided to go to Valletta.
We were not to be disappointed. Arriving rather early, it was nice to see that the church was already rather full. The lighting was dimmed in expectation of the blessing of the fire and the lighting of the paschal candle and the proclamation of the ‘Light of Christ’.
It was wonderful to see the church being gradually lit up as the candles we all held received the Light from the Paschal Candle. This has always been one of my favorite moments together with the chant of the Exultet which is the Easter proclamation sung by the deacon. It was a beautiful celebration with many significant moments such as the intonation of the Gloria and the ringing of the bells after their silence from Maundy Thursday evening, accompanied by an organ fanfare.
Another beautiful moment was the proclamation of the Hallelujah by Mgr Arthur Said Pullicino who, despite his venerable age, managed to convey the solemnity and joy of the Easter message in a manner that truly struck me.
Mgr Scicluna is managing to redefine the model of the Church in Malta in the spirit of Pope Francis
It was a long celebration, highlighted by the baptism of a number of adults and children. It was also an opportunity for those present to renew their baptismal vows and to be sprinkled with newly blessed water. Archbishop Scicluna made sure that my partner and I received a rather significant blessing!
I recall how in my first commentary published in this newspaper in March 2015, I had described the appointment of Charles Scicluna as Archbishop of Malta as a ‘new beginning’ for the Church in Malta.
Undoubtedly, throughout these past two years, Mgr Scicluna has already left his mark not only on the Church itself but also on Maltese society as a whole. Internally, he is carrying out a process of renewal of the structures which had been largely left untouched during the tenure of his immediate predecessor.
He is involving the laity much more significantly in positions of responsibility. In brief, he is trying to bring the Church in Malta into the modern age although there is still a long way ahead.
With regard to the relevance of the Church to Maltese society, here is a man who refuses to be held hostage by the perceived errors of his predecessors. I will not enter into the whole issue of the extent to which his frequent tweets have stirred up controversy. However, it is good that he has something to say and that people are taking notice of what he says. He also knows how to exercise prudence having declared that he will be restraining his temptation to tweet in the current pre-electoral climate.
Mgr Scicluna is managing to redefine the model of the Church in Malta in the spirit of Pope Francis. I wonder whether this would have been the case had Joseph Ratzinger still been pope. In truth, this change in approach can also be witnessed in Gozo. I was very positively struck by the interview which Bishop Mario Grech gave to the The Sunday Times of Malta on Easter Sunday. Both our bishops seem to have a good understanding of contemporary Maltese society and, as a result, no longer remain stuck in the nostalgia of an era when the Church was possibly the most dominant force in these islands for better and for worse.
In his interview, Mgr Grech comes across as a man who is at ease rather than feeling threatened by a changing society. He used expressions such as not being able to see certain situations such as “irregular families” from a black-and-white perspective and that no two situations are the same. The Church is a Church of mercy and not of rules, he adds. Amen to that.
The same newspaper also carried an opinion piece by Mgr Scicluna. His thoughts reflect the homily he delivered at the Easter Vigil in St John’s. The sentence in the homily that truly struck me most was that Christ’s resurrection is not an act of violence that imposes itself onto mankind’s free will. In the newspaper the Archbishop repeats the same thought: “He does not impose himself on us, he respects our freedom.”
It is indeed a pity that so soon after Easter Sunday, the unfolding political agenda seems to have thrown us off track and that we already appear to have forgotten the significance of what we have just celebrated.
Easter remains an opportunity for a new beginning. It’s a celebration of the mystery of death and resurrection. Each and every one of us is invited to restrain whatever debases us as human beings in an effort to let loose the intrinsic goodness that often lays buried deep inside.
It is a celebration of the ultimate victory of light over darkness, of good over evil, of love over hate. It is also a moment when we are challenged once more to decide where we stand as we look into the empty tomb.
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